Intriguing exploration of how the Buddha’s story was appropriated across languages and cultures into a legendary Christian saint.
Lopez (Buddhist and Tibetan Studies/Univ. of Michigan; From Stone to Flesh: A Short History of the Buddha, 2013, etc.) and McCracken (French/Univ. of Michigan; The Curse of Eve, the Wound of the Hero: Blood, Gender, and Medieval Literature, 2003, etc.) do far more than trace a specific literary thread through the Middle Ages. They also explore the power of storytelling to aid peoples and cultures, as well as the ability of cultures to borrow or reinvent stories from each other. The authors demonstrate that the story of the Buddha was first utilized as the basis of an Arabic work that preserves various aspects of the Buddha’s early life story without being explicitly Buddhist. Soon after, in the ninth or 10th century, Georgian monks working at a monastery in Palestine translated the Arabic story into Georgian, Christianizing the tale at the same time. It went on to be translated into Greek, Latin and even Hebrew, entering the Western European conscience through the character of St. Josaphat, a Christianized version of the Buddha. The authors work in several layers. Initially, they provide lay readers with a background in the original Buddha story. Then they offer colorful summaries of each version of the story as it moved through Arabic and into Western languages. All the while, they provide historic background on the cultural forces that brought these translations into being. Finally, they explore more modern Western interactions with Buddhism and the slow realization that the Buddha did not resemble Josaphat but vice versa. The work is a fascinating historical detective story, entertaining as a curiosity. Beyond that, however, Lopez and McCracken have done a service to scholarship by providing an excellent example of how cultures, religions and languages are able to share, appropriate and transform a story for their own needs and purposes.
Solid research with wide appeal.